The stolen history of Girmitiyas in Fiji

If you are a non-Gujarati and a non-Punjabi Indo Fijian having roots in Fiji, chances are that you are a descendant of a Coolie.

Yes, Coolie, or dog – that is the derogatory name the white British gave to our forebears, the ‘Girmitiyas,’ or indentured labourers.

No matter whether you are a thriving professional or a common person living in Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, US, Canada, Britain or anywhere in the world, you have no choice in this matter-that is a historical fact.

I do not blame you for not knowing anything about the Girmitiyas. Their life, struggle and torture in Fiji have been deliberately hidden from the world and from the books of history.

In Fiji’s primary and secondary schools, we learnt about early history of indigenous Fijians, provincial tribal wars and their legends.

We also learnt about the prowess and courage of various European explorers and seamen, the history of the British Royal Family, contributions of the British and Commonwealth in developing the earth, and about the glory of the white men’s contributions to carving out the destiny of the world.

However, as far as Fiji’s history is concerned, there is almost no acknowledgement of the contributions of the Girmitiya to its development.

Deliberate omission

The accounts of trickery of recruiters, of whipping, over-tasking, unauthorised pay cuts, punching, kicking, suicides, rapes, sexual violations and killings in the cane fields of early Fiji have been completely missed by the history books.

This was no accident but deliberately done to hide the inhumane, criminal and villainous acts by the “axis of evil.’

This comprised the colonialist British and Australian governments and the monster Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR), against the innocent and defenseless indentured labourers.

Since the British were the colonial rulers of Fiji for around a century, they had the distinct advantage of manipulating history. That is why we learnt manufactured history devoid of the contributions and sufferings of indentured Indians.

Unspoken indifference

It is unfortunate that even Fiji’s people settled overseas, like in Sacramento, Brisbane, Vancouver, San Francisco, and Auckland have been so immersed in their new found prosperity that any thought of Girmit or Girmitiyas was considered blasphemy, scratching of old wounds and digging of historical graves.

Six years ago, I hoped to mark Girmit Day on May 14 in Auckland, but was shunned by the descendants of Girmitiyas.

What a shame!

Even a temple, with an appropriate hall, supported and frequented by Indo-Fijians, refused to grant us free use as they had to pay mortgage on their loan.

No one of course spoke of the mortgage that we owe to the sacrifices and sufferings of Girmitiyas that have landed us in this prosperity now.

Can Indo-Fijians settled abroad be so thankless, conceited, selfish and forgetful?

Educating youngsters

We need to tell our children and grandchildren about our heritage.

They should be told the stories of Girmit so that they know their ancestry.

They should know the sufferings endured by their ancestors on those sea journeys between 1879 and 1916, which saw some 60,000 Indians brought to Fiji.

They deserve to know that subsequently their descendents in Fiji went through immense sufferings and discriminations by successive, supposedly democratic, Fijian governments from independence in 1970 to 2006.

Descendants of Girmitiyas, like their forefathers are like gold – the more you subject them to fire and heat, the brighter and purer they get.

Similarly, greater the degree of injustice and atrocities they suffered at the hands of colonialists and now modern sahibs in the form of past Fiji government’s institutionalised racial policies, the better they excelled in life.

We as children of Girmit have learnt to persevere and better ourselves when passing through adversity in our adopted homes abroad.

Unfortunately, the sufferings and sacrifices of our ancestors have been ignored, sadly by their own descendents as well as history.

Waitakere Indians remember

As we mark 133 years of the first arrival of indentured labourers to Fiji on May 14, 2012, this article is meant as a wreath on the graves of Girmitiyas to who the whole of Fiji and those who originated from there owe its gratitude. And so do we, the descendants of the Girmitiyas.

In recognition of their sacrifices, the Waitakere Indian Association, in their pioneering spirit, will commemorate the anniversary on May 20, 2012. Girmit Memoriam Day will be held from 10 to 1 pm at Mt Albert War Memorial Hall, 751-773 New North Road, St Lukes.

May the souls of our departed Girmitiyas and our ancestors rest in peace!

Thakur Ranjit Singh is a third generation Indo-Fijian, whose grandfather Bansi arrived in Fiji in 1915 from Karouli, Rajasthan, Thakur visited in 2003 to trace his roots. Originally from Rarawai, Ba Fiji, he is now settled in Auckland. He is the Chief Executive of Media Relations Limited, his family-owned Public Relations, Event Management and Communications Company. He is a media commentator on various social, cultural, political and religious issues for newspapers in Brisbane, San Francisco, Sacramento, Vancouver, Fiji and New Zealand.


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